Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Josh Weil

In books, fiction, novellas, short stories, writing on April 11, 2010 at 1:22 pm

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Josh Weil. Photo by Ben Weil.

An introduction to the author of The New Valley. Josh Weil shares a bit about himself, and his thoughts on writing. Weil’s book The New Valley, a trio of novellas, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has stories forthcoming in Glimmer Train and Appalachian Heritage, and an essay in The New York Times.
Quick Facts on Josh Weil:

  • Josh Weil’s website: www.joshweil.com
  • Lives in his Virginia cabin much of the year, but currently in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Comfort food: Popovers, mashed potatoes, liver and onions
  • Top reads: Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
  • Current reads: Poachers by Tom Franklin, Blue Colonial by David Roderick

What are you working on?
A novel called The Great Glass Sea set in northern Russia. A collection of short stories called The Age of Perpetual Light.

Whom do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
Me. I write what I think I would want to read. If I tried to imagine a reader…there’s no way I could know what a reader would want.

Where and when do you prefer to write?
Always in the morning, early. I have a very specific routine, so much so it’s almost become a crutch. I like to be sitting at my desk before it’s light out or else I get bothered. I drink coffee in a certain diner mug, wear the same kind of outfit, put earplugs in. As the earplugs expand I feel the rest of the world go away. I’m usually down at my cabin in Virginia. I’ve gotten more and more tied to writing there, where my window looks over a vegetable garden and an old cattle gate. I can see down the pasture.

I hate writing in the city, partially because of the noise, but mainly because I like to be in the middle of something and then get up, go for a walk, think, and talk to myself without worrying about running into people. In the city I’m more likely to see people I know. I love my friends, but I spend all my time with them, and stay out late, which makes it hard to wake up early and work. So, I prefer to be at the cabin, but that may not work well for me in the long-term, as a life.

What do you listen to when you work?
Actually, sometimes I put my earplugs in and then put headphones on over that and listen to music. I don’t listen to music when I’m writing a first draft, in the creation phase. Occasionally, I listen to music when I’m editing or outlining—it either has to have words in a language I can’t understand or be instrumental. I like the Friends of Dean Martinez, Ayub Ogada, Dirty Three.

Do you have a personal philosophy for why you write?
It’s really selfish. I write because I like telling stories, and when it’s going well there is no high like it. It is an entirely different experience from anything else I’ve ever done. I fall in love with my characters—they’re not real people, but I feel like I’ve given birth to them. Writing is a really powerful experience. I try to write about things I think are important.

I would miss writing too much to not do it.

Which authors would you love to see your work shelved alongside?
Jim Shepard, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Jim Harrison. I have some buddies who I think are going to be some of the great writers of this generation. It makes me happiest to think I’m going through this with them, I’ll be on the shelves with them: Paul Yoon, Bret Anthony Johnston, Benjamin Percy.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?
“Write what scares you. If what you’re writing doesn’t frighten you at least a little bit, you probably shouldn’t be writing it.” A former professor of mine, Vincent Cardinal, told me this (of course, the wording might have been a bit different). It’s guided me.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write what you absolutely have to write, the thing that will bust you open from the inside if you don’t get it out. Keep writing it, and keep writing it; let yourself love it. Especially while you’re first getting it out. If you don’t, no one else will.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Find the wound in a character. Write from that.

Remember everybody wants something, always.

Write what you need to be writing. For instance, with the novellas I worked on I never even imagined they would be published; I just needed to write them.

What’s an unusual question you’ve been asked about your writing?
What is my comfort food. No, actually, when I’ve read the story “Ridge Weather,” I’ve been asked if I ever wanted to commit suicide.

When not writing, what do you like to do?
I like swimming in rivers—I don’t get to do enough of that. I love movies. I love eating, especially going to dive-y ethnic joints. I like to cook. I love hosting big dinner parties.

About Josh Weil
Josh Weil, author of The New Valley, was awarded the Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters; the New Writers Award from the GLCA; and a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Gilman School, the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and the Fulbright Foundation.

(Interview first published on Suite101.com in April 2010.)

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Josh Weil.” Words With Writers (2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/04/11/josh-weil.]

The New Valley by Josh Weil (Grove Press, 2009)

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